Archive for May, 2015

David Brooks on Poverty: Let’s Stop Trying to Help

May 01 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

David Brooks wrote a column today titled “The Nature of Poverty.” I did not like it. Here is what I did not like about it:

Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty. And in the midst of every storm, there are people crying out that we should finally get serious about this issue. This time it was Jon Stewart who spoke for many when he said: “And you just wonder sometimes if we’re spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, like, we can’t build a little taste down Baltimore way. Like is that what’s really going on?”

The audience applauded loudly, and it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not really relevant.

I’d say rethinking how much we’re willing to throw down the bottomless pit of military spending versus what we’re willing to invest in social programs is, in fact, relevant. Is it the whole story? Of course it’s not. But that’s an applause-worthy line.

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money.

Sure it is. The problem is mainly about attention and money. I can’t think of a problem in the world that couldn’t be, if not completely solved, then at least ameliorated with an infusion of thought and resources. What else do we have at our disposal?

Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

A couple things. One, we didn’t hand that money out — though there are serious people who argue that we should have a guaranteed minimum income. Instead we spent that on a range of social programs, some of which work well and some of which are complete busts. The conclusion to draw here isn’t that social spending doesn’t have any effect. It’s that we need to take a harder look at the data and spend money where it has the greatest impact. Talk to people who study inequality and you’ll hear over and over that the federal government often doesn’t examine data to see what’s working. Once a program starts, it’s hard to kill it. We need to be smarter and more nimble with our spending (see above point about attention and money).

As Peter Wehner pointed out in Commentary, in 2011 Baltimore ranked second among the nation’s largest 100 school districts in how much it spent per pupil, $15,483 per year.

I guess we get this figure here as further evidence that money doesn’t fix problems. Maybe we need to spend more than 15 grand per pupil to address the longstanding inequities in cities like Baltimore. You can’t attend a top-notch private school in the DC area for 15 grand. What if we spent the same amount on poor inner city kids as rich parents spend to send their kids to Sidwell Friends?

Is that worth thinking about? Or have we already concluded that money doesn’t matter?

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

All these efforts. We’ve tried so hard. We haven’t historically neglected these communities. Apparently, according to Brooks, we’ve done our very best — we’ve given all the attention and money we can possibly muster — and Gray’s life is still a wreck. Oh well. (Incidentally, if you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in a house or apartment with lead paint. Lead paint can cause cognitive impairment. Maybe we should have spent some of that aforementioned Afghanistan money on lead remediation in inner cities.)

It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people. But all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy. Often, the money has served as a cushion, not a ladder.

MONEY DOESN’T REALLY HELP. How many times does David Brooks have to tell you this? No amount of money will help poor people. A lack of money — and the many, many opportunities that come with having more money — isn’t the problem. Because they buy cushions rather than ladders. They should totally buy ladders so that they can climb free of their current circumstances. We tried to help and they blew it. Way to go, poors.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty.

Zero people are saying we should only spend more money. I bet if you interviewed the people clapping at the Jon Stewart line — the ones sniffed at earlier in the column — they would say it’s some combination of money and attention. I like how “phase shift” sounds, though. Fancy.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

Stop rioting and start pirouetting, people. Get with it!

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

Right. And you know something that middle-class people have that lower-class people do not? In fact, it’s the one thing that separates them? It starts with “m” and rhymes with “honey.”

Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.

Zero people are saying lack of jobs is the only problem. Everyone thinks education is part of it too. Some of us even think spending more on education might help.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.

No it’s not. It’s really not. We have lots of researchers — social psychologists, economists, historians — who describe poverty through an academic lens. David, if you’re reading this, I can email you a list. More of them would be great, but that’s not the key ingredient. What we need is more sustained attention and, yes, more well-spent money. We need to be willing to try new things rather than throw up our hands. And it doesn’t help when somebody writes a column that essentially lets the rest of us off the hook for problems we helped create. Not only does it not help: it actively hurts because it justifies the status quo and supports our continued complacency.

To reiterate, I did not like the column.